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Online Databases Won’t Disclose All Info to Public

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation’s largest computer database companies said Tuesday that they aren’t prepared to give consumers a complete look at the information about them that is compiled and sold.

For a fee, database firms allow customers to search for people’s names, addresses, ages and property records. The eight firms, which include Lexis-Nexis, unveiled self-regulatory guidelines at Federal Trade Commission hearings Tuesday. They said they are willing to tell consumers the type of information they have, such as property records, but will not provide specific details, such as the amount of a lien. The FTC is exploring whether federal regulation of the database industry is needed.

The policy, though limited, is a step forward for most database companies, which glean their information from public sources. Until now, these companies would sell the information only to customers ranging from retailers and banks to journalists and lawyers. In most cases, private citizens could not see their own files.

Because consumers don’t have access to the information, they would be unaware of inaccuracies in the reports and therefore unable to correct them.

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Privacy activists at the four-day hearing noted that unlike the credit-reporting industry, which provides individuals with copies of their reports, these online search services keep information from consumers. They also noted that the companies cannot be required to abide by their policy.

In addition, some of the activists complained that the plans do not restrict compilation of data on children. Information about people under age 18 is available through public documents, such as birth records and motor vehicles records.

The firms objected to restrictions, saying the records are useful to law enforcement and private investigators in locating missing or lost children.

The companies have agreed to limit release of nonpublic information, such as Social Security numbers, to law enforcement or private investigators with legitimate purposes.

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The database firms said it would be difficult to give consumers access to the information kept on them because it is spread out among many databases.


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